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This rat race is for real

Rat catchers

India's Irula tribe catches them for a living

September 16, 1997
Web posted at: 4:04 p.m. EDT (2004 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

TAMIL NADU, India (CNN) -- Throughout much of the world, rats are considered worthless and worth avoiding. But some members of India's Irula tribe depend on them for survival. For them, rats are a livelihood -- and delicious.

The Irulas are world-class rat catchers, fast and professional as they dig and poke rat-infested farmland, grabbing the rodents by hand as they help Indian rice growers solve one of their biggest problems. By some estimates, almost half of India's grain harvest is destroyed by rats.

"Their ability to catch hundreds of rats in a day is startling," says Romulus Whitaker of India's Madras Crocodile Bank.

Irulas catching rats

The Irulas are among India's poorest people, a tribe of nomadic hunters who developed their rat-catching skills centuries ago when southern India was covered with forests.

Now they have no land. Some don't even have homes. And many still survive by hunting, not in forests but in farmers' fields.

Working as a cooperative society where everyone works for the benefit of all, the Irulas sell the rats they catch to a local crocodile farm, with thousands of hungry reptilian mouths to feed.

Watch the rat catchers in action
video icon 1.2M/19 sec. QuickTime movie

With so much food in the rice fields, rats multiply fast. For the farmer, hiring the Irulas is a safer, cheaper alternative to toxic pesticides that may not even work. The Irulas, storing their catch in cloth bags, can show the farmer at a glance how many rats they are taking off his land.

Rat catching: a proud tradition

Bag of rats

The Irulas say they are proud to be rat catchers. Families work as a team, eradicating pests in a process handed down from generation to generation.

The job even turns exciting at times, becoming a literal rat race. A target lucky enough to escape the clutches of the Irulas finds freedom only momentary as the fast-moving rat catchers chase down their prey.

There's also a bonus -- grain from the rats' burrows will be cooked for dinner. And so will some of the rats. They are high in protein and low in cholesterol.

Many Irulas will have no other meat but rat.

With their bags full, the rat patrol moves on. For the Irulas, more grain fields -- and rats -- always lie ahead.


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